Brazil is a democracy that holds competitive elections, and the political arena, though polarized, is characterized by vibrant public debate. However, independent journalists and civil society activists risk harassment and violent attack, and the government has struggled to address high rates of violent crime and disproportionate violence against and economic exclusion of minorities. Corruption is endemic at top levels, contributing to widespread disillusionment with traditional political parties. Societal discrimination and violence against LGBT+ people remain serious problems.
- Brazilians remained heavily affected by the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with the January closure of an aid program worsening economic conditions for millions; support was temporarily reinstated in April, however. Nearly 425,000 deaths and over 14.6 million cases were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) during the year.
- Rallies supporting and opposing President Jair Bolsonaro were held nationwide on September 7, the country’s independence day. Most activity was peaceful, though pro-Bolsonaro participants broke through police barriers in Brasília; Bolsonaro himself called for the impeachment of a Supreme Court justice while addressing supporters.
- Lower-house legislators did not sustain Bolsonaro’s proposal to replace the country’s electronic voting system in an August vote. On the day of the vote, Bolsonaro presided over a military parade in Brasília, which was widely derided by other politicians.
- The Bolsonaro administration interfered with the work of scholars and educators during the year. In October, the Economy Ministry asked legislators to restrict disbursements earmarked for scientific endeavors, while staff members at the National Institute of Educational Studies and Research (INEP) accused the government of trying to influence the content of school examinations in November.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
Brazil is a federal republic governed under a presidential system. The president is elected by popular vote for a four-year term and is eligible for reelection to a second consecutive term.
In the 2018 race, candidates made their cases to voters disillusioned by persistent, high-level corruption scandals, and increasingly concerned by a difficult economic environment and a rise in violent crime. Jair Bolsonaro, then of the far-right Social Liberal Party (PSL), won the election, taking 55.1 percent of the vote in a runoff against Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT). Bolsonaro’s campaign was characterized by a disdain for democratic principles and aggressive pledges to wipe out corruption and violent crime. An Organization of American States (OAS) election observation mission generally praised the poll’s administration and stakeholders quickly accepted its result. However, the highly polarized campaign was marred by the spread of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and aggressive rhetoric on social networks and online messaging services (notably WhatsApp). There were also frequent preelection threats and violence targeting candidates, political supporters, journalists, and members of the judiciary. While most of the reported incidents appeared to involve attacks by Bolsonaro supporters, his backers were also targeted, and Bolsonaro was stabbed at a rally that September, forcing him to cut back on public appearances a month before the election.
State and municipal elections, which are regulated by the same voter-registration and vote-counting rules as national elections, are generally perceived as free and fair. Municipal elections were held throughout the country in November 2020. Centrist and conservative parties not aligned with the president made gains and PT mayoral candidates suffered losses, while Bolsonaro-backed candidates performed poorly.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
Legislative elections are generally free and fair. The bicameral National Congress is composed of an 81-member Senate and a 513-member Chamber of Deputies. Senators serve staggered eight-year terms, with one– to two-thirds coming up for election every four years. Members of the Chamber of Deputies serve four-year terms.
In the October 2018 elections, the PT lost seats but remained the largest party in the lower house, with 56 deputies. The PSL captured 52 seats, up from just a single seat previously. In the Senate, the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB, previously PMDB) maintained its lead with a total of 12 seats, while the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) won 9, followed by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), Democrats (DEM), and PT, with 4 seats each. The PSL entered the chamber after winning 4 seats.
The 2018 legislative elections were held concurrently with the first round of the presidential election; campaigning thus took place in the same highly polarized environment, marked by aggressive rhetoric and instances of political violence.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
Brazilian election laws are generally well enforced. A Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) presides over cases related to violations of electoral law.
While Brazilian voters have cast ballots electronically since 1996, President Bolsonaro proposed its replacement with a paper-receipt system via a constitutional amendment. In August 2021, the TSE opened an investigation into Bolsonaro over his claims that elections due in 2022 could be affected by fraud due to electronic voting. The TSE also called on the Supreme Court to authorize an investigation, which a Supreme Court justice ordered days later. Later that month, the Chamber of Deputies did not sustain Bolsonaro’s proposed amendment in a vote which did not attain a needed three-fifths majority. The TSE defended the integrity of the electronic voting system and announced measures to improve transparency after the legislative vote.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Brazil has an unfettered multiparty system marked by vigorous competition among rival parties. The electoral framework encourages the proliferation of parties, a number of which are based in a single state. Some parties display little ideological consistency. Party switching is common by members of Congress, rendering electoral coalitions fragile. The sheer number of parties means that the executive branch must piece together diverse and often ideologically incoherent coalitions to pass legislation. In late 2019, Bolsonaro left the PSL, joining the Liberal Party (PL) in November 2021.
Ahead of the 2018 elections, 35 parties were registered, 30 of which won seats in the lower chamber—the largest number of parties seated there since the country’s return to electoral politics in 1985. However, political parties operate with little transparency and under no governance rules, and often are targets of investigations into the misuse of public funds.
In October 2021, the PSL and the DEM announced their intention to merge; their proposed party, the Brazil Union, would have the single largest number of legislators in the current Chamber of Deputies. The merger requires the TSE’s approval and was not finalized at year’s end.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
Opposition parties are able to compete freely and gain power through elections at both the federal and subnational levels. Ahead of the 2018 polls, the small, far-right PSL succeeded in attracting widespread support in a short amount of time. Elected officials in subnational positions are often influential political actors, and prominent opposition to Bolsonaro has come from these leaders.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
Recent investigations into corruption have exposed how powerful business interests undermine democratic accountability by facilitating or encouraging corruption among elected officials. Criminal groups have carried out attacks against political candidates.
In 2018, Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco, a Black lesbian politician and outspoken advocate for minorities, was murdered. Investigations into the crime revealed corruption schemes and the growing power of militia groups in Rio de Janeiro State, whose membership includes active and retired members of the local police force. Although two alleged perpetrators were detained in 2019, the mastermind of the crime remained unknown.
Militias and other criminal organizations—which may exercise significant control over campaigning and other political activity within their territories—were partly blamed for a rise in violence as the 2020 municipal elections approached; at least 25 candidates were killed prior to the balloting that November.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
The constitution guarantees equal rights without prejudice, but some groups have greater political representation than others. Afro-Brazilians and women and their interests remain underrepresented in electoral politics and in government. Only 15 percent of all Chamber of Deputies seats were held by women as of December 2020, while 12.4 percent of Senate seats were held by women as of that month.
Several underrepresented groups saw improvements during the 2020 municipal elections: self-identified Afro-Brazilians garnered approximately 44 percent of city council seats; the number of Indigenous mayors and council members rose nearly 30 percent; LGBT+ candidates won a record number of seats; and the number of women elected rose modestly compared to 2016. Gains in diversity were abetted by a TSE ruling that parties must distribute public campaign funds equitably between white and nonwhite candidates.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Widespread corruption undermines the government’s ability to make and implement policy without undue influence from private or criminal interests.
During the 2010s, the functioning of government was severely hampered by a rolling political crisis that saw the removal of then president Dilma Rousseff following charges she had improperly manipulated the state budget. Her term was completed by then vice president Michel Temer, who faced bribery and obstruction-of-justice charges which the lower house subsequently blocked.
Given Bolsonaro’s lack of a stable governing coalition, congressional leaders have gained political prominence since he came to power. The National Congress and state governors helped fill a vacuum in responding to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with many governors insisting on stricter pandemic restrictions and vocally objecting to Bolsonaro’s management.
The presence of thousands of active-duty and retired military officials in the Bolsonaro administration, along with the expansion of military missions to areas like environmental protection, has prompted unease about growing armed-forces influence in politics. In August 2021, as legislators considered Bolsonaro’s proposal to end electronic voting, Bolsonaro presided over a military parade in Brasília, which was derided by other politicians.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption and graft are endemic in Brazil, especially among elected officials. Beginning in 2014, an investigation known as Operation Car Wash focused on bribery, money laundering, and bid-rigging involving state oil company Petrobras and private construction companies. In addition to former Petrobras executives and heads of major construction firms, its findings have also implicated elected officials from across the political spectrum. Sérgio Moro, then serving as a judge, became the face of the crackdown, and subsequently joined the incoming Bolsonaro administration as justice minister.
However, a series of investigative reports known as Car Wash Leaks, published by the Intercept Brasil in 2019, exposed an improper relationship between then judge Moro and federal prosecutors, in which Moro shared advice on how to prosecute high-level corruption cases. One such case was that of former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who was convicted on corruption charges and imprisoned in 2018 before being freed in late 2019, after the Supreme Court ruled that defendants must be released while appeals are pending. A Supreme Court justice annulled the convictions in March 2021 on procedural grounds, a decision sustained by the full court in April. Moro himself had resigned as justice minister in 2020, after President Bolsonaro attempted to interfere with the federal police, one of the agencies tasked with investigating the president’s family and associates.
Criminal inquiries have targeted multiple members of Bolsonaro’s family. In November 2020, one of the president’s sons, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, was charged with diverting public resources when he was a Rio de Janeiro state deputy. By March 2021, all four Bolsonaro sons were subject to corruption investigations. In July, news outlet UOL reported on President Bolsonaro’s apparent participation in a salary-embezzlement scheme while serving as a lower-house legislator; prosecutors would not be able to file any charges until he leaves office. By December 2021, the Supreme Court’s second chamber reportedly ruled that evidence against Flávio Bolsonaro was inadmissible.
Numerous corruption allegations were lodged amid Brazil’s widely criticized response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2021, the Senate opened an inquiry into the Bolsonaro administration’s management of the pandemic. The inquiry submitted its report to the prosecutor general’s office in October, accusing the president of committing 9 crimes, including misuse of public funds, and calling for indictments against 78 individuals and 2 companies.
State and local governments have also faced investigations. Rio de Janeiro state governor Wilson Witzel, who was suspended over a federal graft probe related to pandemic-related procurements in September 2020, was removed from office in April 2021.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Brazil enacted a Freedom of Information Act in 2012, but in practice, the government does not always release requested information, and when doing so, not always in machine-readable formats. Compliance with the legislation also varies among the country’s 26 states and the Brasília Federal District. In 2019, the Bolsonaro administration enacted a decree modifying the Freedom of Information Act, giving a larger group of officials the power to classify information as secret.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, President Bolsonaro routinely spread misinformation about the virus, advocating use of discredited medications, particularly hydroxychloroquine. In October 2021, Bolsonaro claimed that recipients of COVID-19 vaccines were susceptible to acquiring AIDS. Supreme Court justice Alexandre de Moraes ordered a probe into his comments in December.
COVID-19-related transparency portals maintained by subnational governments partially compensated for federal shortcomings by providing information on emergency contracts, donations, and social protection measures.
|Are there free and independent media?
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the country’s media environment is vibrant. However, investigative journalists, particularly those who cover corruption and crime, face threats, harassment, obstruction, and sometimes deadly violence.
Journalists who criticize Bolsonaro face online and offline harassment, and outlets that carry such criticism face economic pressure from the government. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) counted 331 attacks against the press from President Bolsonaro, his family, and other government officials in the first half of 2021, a 5.4 percent increase over the second half of 2020.
The legal framework provides inadequate protection for freedom of expression. Defamation is subject to criminal penalties, and high-ranking officials have requested criminal investigations of journalists over criticisms of the government’s COVID-19 response. In May 2021, Attorney General Augusto Aras alleged that Folha de São Paulo columnist and law professor Conrado Hübner Mendes engaged in slander, libel, and defamation for a January column criticizing Aras. The case remained ongoing as of July.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the government generally respects this right in practice. However, Afro-Brazilian religious groups face discrimination; 17 percent of cases registered through a national human rights hotline in the first half of 2019 came from members of those groups, who represent less than 2 percent of the Brazilian population. Violence against Afro-Brazilian religious groups is frequent, especially in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. The Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance, composed of judges and public prosecutors, registered over 200 Afro-Brazilian temples (“terreiros”) closed in 2019 after assaults or threats from evangelical drug dealers, who claim territory like other Brazilian drug traffickers but also seek to repress faiths other than their own.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Education policy has become increasingly politicized under the Bolsonaro administration, with some professors and researchers seeking temporary refuge abroad following threats in Brazil.
The administration placed persistent pressure on academia and scientific organizations during the year. In February 2021, the comptroller general’s office warned epidemiologist Pedro Hallal that his employment was at risk after he criticized the administration’s COVID-19 response. The comptroller general later reached an agreement with Hallal, who promised not to discuss professional “appreciation or disapproval” for two years. In early 2021, the Education Ministry ordered the rectors of federal universities to stop staff activities deemed “partisan,” though it rescinded its order in March. In April, the administrator of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation was allowed to review the works of its scientists before publication.
Government bodies have also sought to disrupt funding for scientific and educational projects. In October 2021, the Economy Ministry asked a congressional budget committee to restrict monetary disbursements earmarked for a public-science funding mechanism.
In November 2021, staff members of the National Institute of Educational Studies and Research (INEP), which is responsible for administering school tests, accused the government of pressuring it to remove controversial subjects from a high school examination. Some 37 INEP staff members asked for their own dismissal that month, citing a hostile work environment.
The administration has worked to influence education in other ways since taking power. In 2019, for example, the administration sought to remove references of gender-based violence (GBV) and minority-rights issues from school textbooks. In September 2021, news outlet Estadão reported that schoolchildren in Santa Filomena were forced to watch pro-Bolsonaro advertisements while using a publicly provided internet service.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 because the government has continued to monitor and persecute scholars for their work.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
People are generally able to express personal views in public without fear of surveillance or retaliation. However, in the tense 2018 campaign atmosphere, some political speech was met with acts of violence. A prevalence of violent homophobic rhetoric in recent years has contributed to a sense of fear among many that open discussion of LGBT+ rights and issues could be met with harassment or attack.
Social-media intimidation and harassment by progovernment troll groups remains a serious problem in Brazil. Bolsonaro allies, including family members, have faced investigations over their involvement in disinformation campaigns.
Public servants are subject to social-media monitoring and risk losing their positions if they criticize the government.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
While freedom of assembly is generally respected, police or other security agents sometimes use excessive force against demonstrations.
Pro– and anti-Bolsonaro protests were held nationwide on September 7, 2021, the country’s independence day. Pro-Bolsonaro protesters successfully broke through police barriers in Brasília, though they were prevented from entering the Supreme Court building and police used tear gas to push demonstrators back. The rallies, which reportedly included over 100,000 participants in Brasília and São Paulo, were otherwise largely peaceful.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely in a variety of fields. However, activists working on land rights and environmental protection issues have faced harassment, threats, and violence in recent years, along with verbal hostility from Bolsonaro and other administration officials. In September 2021, Global Witness called Brazil the fourth most-dangerous country in the world for environmental activists, noting the deaths of 20 activists in 2020.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Industrial labor unions are well organized, and although they are politically connected, Brazilian unions tend to be freer from political party control than their counterparts in other Latin American countries. However, controversial labor reforms enacted in 2017 diminished the strength and role of unions in collective bargaining with businesses.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
The judiciary, though largely independent, is overburdened, inefficient, and often subject to intimidation and other external influences, especially in rural areas. Despite these shortcomings, the country’s progressive constitution has resulted in an active judiciary that often rules in favor of citizens over the state.
The Supreme Court has maintained its role as an autonomous counterweight to the executive. Tensions remained high in 2021, with Bolsonaro frequently issuing threats against the court. In August, Bolsonaro called for the impeachment of Supreme Court justice Alexandre de Moraes, who had backed the TSE’s call for an investigation into the president over his voting fraud comments earlier that month. Bolsonaro also vowed to ignore de Moraes’s rulings when addressing supporters on September 7. Chief Justice Luiz Fux criticized Bolsonaro’s statements in remarks delivered a day later, and Bolsonaro subsequently apologized to the court.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
The judiciary generally upholds the right to a fair trial. However, federal, state, and appellate courts are severely backlogged. The state struggles to provide legal counsel for defendants and prisoners who are unable to afford an attorney. Access to justice also varies greatly due to income inequality. Under a 2017 law, members of the armed forces and military police accused of certain serious crimes against civilians can be tried in military, rather than civilian, courts.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Brazil has a high homicide rate, though an 8 percent decline was recorded in the first half of 2021 over the same period in 2020. The police force remains mired in corruption, and serious police abuses, including extrajudicial killings, continued in 2021. Police officers are rarely prosecuted for abuses, and those charged are almost never convicted. In July 2021, the Brazilian Public Security Forum (FBSP) reported 6,416 deaths caused by police in 2020. Some 79 percent of the victims were Black.
Police violence is particularly acute in Rio de Janeiro State. The July 2021 FBSP report noted that seven cities there had some of the country’s highest rates of police-caused deaths. In June 2020, the Supreme Court forbade most police operations in Rio de Janeiro’s slums during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a sharp decline in police violence before the state government resumed raids that October. A May 2021 raid in the Jacarezinho section of the city of Rio de Janeiro ended with the deaths of 28 people, making the raid the deadliest in the city’s history. While the authorities claimed that 24 of the dead attacked police officers, eyewitnesses claimed that officers engaged in executions.
Conditions in severely overcrowded prisons are life-threatening, characterized by disease, a lack of adequate food, and deadly gang-related violence. Violence is more likely to affect poor, Black prisoners. Prisoners and prison staff also risk contracting COVID-19. In May 2021, press outlet Globo reported that at least 437 inmates and prison officials died of the illness since the pandemic began.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Some populations are not able to fully exercise their human rights in practice. Many Indigenous communities—who comprise about 1 percent of the population—suffer from poverty and lack adequate sanitation and education services.
Just over half of the population identifies as Black or of mixed race. Afro-Brazilians suffer from high rates of poverty and illiteracy, and almost 80 percent of Brazilians living in extreme poverty are Black or mixed race. Victims of violence in Brazil are predominantly young, Black, and poor: According to a 2021 FBSP report, 77 percent of murder victims in 2019 were Black. The FBSP also counted 1,350 femicides in 2020, a 0.7 percent increase over 2019.
Although Brazilian society is largely tolerant, it reportedly has one of the world’s highest levels of violence against LGBT+ people. According to Grupo Gay da Bahia, an LGBT+ advocacy organization, 224 LGBT+ people were killed in 2020 because of homophobic violence, while another 13 died by suicide. The organization noted that 70 percent of victims were transgender or cross-dressing people.
In 2019, despite intense pressure from some religious and political leaders, the Supreme Court ruled LGBT+ people are protected under a criminal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, color, ethnicity, religion, and national origin.”
Indigenous lands have been subject to increased pressure since Bolsonaro took office, encouraged by his rhetoric and support for easing environmental laws. Indigenous groups were severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and legislators were forced to override a veto of several provisions of an aid package meant to support Indigenous peoples.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Brazilians enjoy freedom to travel within and outside of the country, and to make decisions about their places of residence and employment, though access to high-quality education across all levels remains a challenge. Gang violence in favelas has sometimes impeded free movement and has prompted schools to shut down temporarily.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
While property rights are generally enforced, laws granting Indigenous populations exclusive use of certain lands are not always upheld, sometimes leading to violent conflicts. According to the Pastoral Land Commission, 26 people were murdered over land disputes in the first eight months of 2021, with a plurality of victims belonging to Indigenous groups. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the federal government almost completely ceased collecting environmental fines starting in late 2019, even as illegal deforestation increased. In July 2021, Reuters reported on the existence of a backlog of over 17,000 uncollected fines.
Requirements for starting new businesses are often onerous, but authorities have taken some steps to ease the process. Legislation approved in 2019 loosened licensing and inspection requirements for small businesses, for example. Corruption and organized crime can pose obstacles to private business activity.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
The government generally does not restrict social freedoms. Same-sex marriage became legal in 2013. GBV remains widespread, though legislation has been introduced to combat it. A 2006 law sought to address high rates of impunity for domestic violence. Law 14.188, which entered force in July 2021, amended the penal code to criminalize simple bodily harm due to gender and criminalize psychological violence against women.
Abortion is legal only in the case of rape, a threat to the mother’s life, or a rare and usually fatal brain deformity in the fetus. In August 2020, the Health Ministry imposed new reporting requirements on clinicians in cases of rape survivors seeking abortions. These restrictions limit women’s reproductive choices and impinge on family planning. As many as one million Brazilians seek abortions through clandestine means annually, including by traveling abroad.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Slavery-like working conditions pose a significant problem in rural and urban zones. A 2012 constitutional amendment allows the government to confiscate all property of landholders found to be using slave labor, a measure Bolsonaro has criticized. The economy has also suffered from mismanagement, including negligence and corruption in state-owned mining and oil enterprises, and successive administrations have failed to address distortions caused by economic concentration. Deeply entrenched patterns of discrimination, including precarious informal employment, contributed to Afro-Brazilians suffering high COVID-19-related mortality rates. State spending to address inequality has been obstructed by a 20-year budgetary spending cap enacted in 2016, which resulted in cuts to public services.
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty and inequality in Brazil had risen more since 2014 than in any other country in Latin America, and the pandemic led to record unemployment and workforce reductions. An emergency aid program provided to offset COVID-19-induced disruptions reduced poverty rates in 2020 but was withdrawn at the end of that year, forcing many recipients back into poverty. The government temporarily restored some pandemic aid in April 2021. Some 14.7 million Brazilians faced extreme poverty as of June.
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Global Freedom Score72 100 free
Internet Freedom Score64 100 partly free